Church History 4: Frederick Schleiermacher

March 2, 2003



Church History 4: Frederick Schleiermacher (3/2/03)

Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

We’ve covered a lot of ground with this four-week series on church history. We’ve skipped over centuries with as little as a paragraph here and there, and we’ve left out a great deal of important information. But today, in attempting to bring this little series to a close, I am almost embarrassed at the amount of important church history that won’t even merit a single sentence.

This morning we must go from Martin Luther to the present day. Well, forget it! Far too much happened over the past 500 years to cover it in a year, let alone a single morning. The Protestant Reformation took off, and splintered into literally hundreds of denominations. Luther, Calvin and Zwingli established three basic foundations upon which the modern Protestant church has been built.

Our own Congregational history deserves an entire series. Henry VIII turning away from the Catholic Church and establishing the Church of England so he could divorce and remarry; the Puritan movement in the Church of England which ultimately led to 101 Pilgrims boarding the Mayflower and sailing to the New World; the role of congregationalism in the formation of the United States constitution; Jonathan Edwards; the Great Awakening; there is no end to how deeply we could go into our own history, without even touching on the hundreds of other denominations that formed as a result of the Reformation.

The 20th Century alone produced some of the most interesting and challenging theology the world has ever seen. The controversy between the modernists, or liberals, and the fundamentalists—that alone deserves a sermon of its own.

However, as I organized this four-week series and saw the amount of ground I would have to cover in this final week, I had no problem identifying the theologian around whom I would construct this morning’s message: Frederick Schleiermacher. My assumption is that most of us have heard of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther; but few have heard of Frederick Schleiermacher.

Schleiermacher was born in 1768 in what is now Poland. His father was a part of the Reformed clergy, meaning he adhered to the strict teachings of John Calvin. Schleiermacher was drawn to philosophy, however, and in 1787 he entered the university and immersed himself in the study of Aristotle and Immanuel Kant. He became an ordained minister in 1794, and spent the rest of his life preaching and teaching in Berlin, Germany.
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To put things in historic perspective, Schleiermacher and Beethoven lived at the same time, in the same culture. For those of you who love history and the arts, you know that this was the Romantic era, when the scientific rationality of the Classical era gave way to the more experimental and emotional Romantic era. I won’t push the analogy between Schleiermacher’s theology and music any further than to say that Schleiermacher is to Luther what Beethoven is to Bach. If that helps at all, great. If it brings up bad memories from music appreciation class, let it go.

A sort of avant-garde culture was developing in the Berlin of that time. Schleiermacher became the tutor of the children of a young count, and soon became friends with the count’s intellectual circle of friends. All over Germany small groups of intellectuals were meeting to discuss the changing culture. It was the discussions of these groups that gave birth to the Romantic era.

The philosopher Friederick Schlegal was in the count’s discussion group, and became one of Schleiermacher’s best friends. This group loved Schleiermacher’s thinking. He was warm, witty, brilliant and articulate. He shared the group’s strong feelings about the importance of individuality. He shared their rejection of the overly rational, detached view of the world that the Enlightenment era had created.

But there was one thing they simply could not understand. How could this intelligent, reasonable, brilliant man be a Christian minister? The other members of his circle had liberated themselves from religion. They were cultured despisers of religion, and saw no place for it in the modern world.

On his 29th birthday, his closest friends threw Frederick Schleiermacher a surprise birthday party. The best and brightest of Berlin were there, and at one point in the celebration, the philosopher Friederick Schlegal gave a signal, and everyone gathered at the party said in unison, “You must write a book.” The group hounded him until he agreed to write a book on religion, a promise he fulfilled less than two years later when he finished, what to this day, is considered one of the most important theology books ever written. It is called On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers.

To understand why this book is so important, we have to dip our toes into the philosophy of that time. Now, if you ever want to give yourself a really good headache, spend some time with Immanuel Kant. I have no desire to torture any of you, or myself for that matter, but there is one thing we need to understand about Kant. Kant is regarded by many, to this day, as having the greatest philosophical mind in human history, with the possible exception of Plato. And while every philosophical argument can be debated, for most philosophers, Kant proved that we cannot reason our way to God. The human mind is incapable of proving the existence of God.

But Kant didn’t throw the idea of God out the window. He said that even though we can’t prove the existence of God, it is better to believe in God than not to believe in God, because belief in God grants us a firm moral foundation. For Kant, religion was all about morality. And the enlightenment thinkers then and ever since have argued that human beings can construct a moral civilization without believing in the existence of a God, whose existence itself cannot be rationally proven.

Excedrin, anyone? The reason we had to touch on Kant is that Schleiermacher attempted to show that Kant was only half right. Of course the existence of God cannot be proven by the human mind. But religion is more than ethics—more than morals. There is another way of knowing. There is knowledge than can be received beyond the reason, beyond thinking.

Here is the foundation of Schleiermacher’s thinking. Religion is not a form of knowledge, and religion is not a system of morality. Instead, religion is grounded in Gefuhl, a German word that is translated into English as feeling. This is unfortunate, because the word feeling does not convey what Schleiermacher is trying to say. Many people dismiss his theology because they think it must be all about emotion. Gefuhl goes much deeper than emotion.

This feeling that Schleiermacher says is the foundation of religion is not a sentimental feeling. It is not an emotional response. It is not a sudden experience that brings about some rise in emotion. Let’s go to the depths for a moment, and see if we can grasp what Schleiermacher is talking about.

Let’s think about our life. Shut out all the distractions, all the clutter, all the noise, and just think about this amazing experience of being alive. What is going on here? Schleiermacher says that if we go to our very depths, and shut everything else out, one fact will become glaringly obvious. Everything that we are—every part of this human life we each experience—is totally dependent upon something else for its very existence.

Turn of the reason, turn off the emotion, just be for a moment; and you will see that each of us is held in being by some power outside of ourselves. We, and everything else in the universe is absolutely dependent on something else. After all, if we could call ourselves into being, we’d just keep doing it forever. Right? But we can’t even guarantee our next breath. There’s something else. But what?

Whatever that is, says Schleiermacher, is what we call God. This is along long way from the guy with the beard who sits on the clouds and looks down on us with anger and judgment. Schleiermacher says that if you go to that place deep within yourself and shut out the rest of the world, you will become radically aware of the existence of the One on whom all the universe depends. That radical awareness he calls Gefuhl, and we translate as feeling.

Okay. Let’s come up for some air. What does all this have to do with reshaping the Christian Church? I said at the beginning of this series that each of the four people we would examine caused a worldwide shift in Christian thought. How did the notion of religion being not so much intellectual, or moral, but rather a feeling of absolute dependence—how did that change the course of Christianity?

First, it provided an avenue for intelligent men and women to embrace the faith. Schleiermacher stood toe to toe with the greatest atheistic minds of his day and showed there was still a place for God and religion in their philosophies. Second, he rescued Christianity from superstition. For Schleiermacher, if your theology didn’t take you to that point of absolute dependence, then it served no purpose. Faith was no longer about what doctrines you believed. Either you recognize your dependence on God or you don’t. If you do, you’re on the right path. If you don’t, you’re going through life wearing blinders. You’re missing the whole point.

And this is the most important legacy of Schleiermacher. Religion does not stand in opposition to science. He reinterpreted all the central doctrines of Christianity in a way that did not contradict modern science. And for that, he is known as the “father of liberalism.”

In many ways, Schleiermacher was a mystic. In the mystical traditions of Christianity, and for that matter the mystical side of all religions, there is a sense of the individual self being absorbed into the whole. Some describe the mystical outlook this way: Compare God to the ocean. Each individual is like a wave rising out of the ocean. Each person is unique, and special, but we all come from the same place and are made of the same thing. And once the wave realizes its very nature is water—the ocean—it loses all fear. It may change forms, but it will always exist as a part of the ocean.

Because Schleiermacher combined science and mysticism, he did not concern himself with miracles, doctrines of creation, the afterlife, or any of the other religious doctrines that people then and now argue about incessantly. Religion is all about the relationship between a person and God.

Reading Schleiermacher’s first book played a significant role in my decision to go to seminary. My copy of that book has more passages underlined than any other book on my shelf. There is no time to go in depth into his theology, but I do want to explore, for just a moment, his thoughts on eternal life.

Some might think that since he accepted science so completely, and since he viewed a human being as something entirely dependent on God for its existence, Schleiermacher would not have believed in the afterlife, or eternal life. His thoughts on this subject are quite complex, but he did indeed believe there is more to us than this life of mortal flesh. These are Schleiermacher’s words regarding immortality:

I believe…each one bears in himself an unchangeable and eternal nature. If our gefuhl (feeling of absolute dependence) nowhere attaches itself to the individual, but if its content is our relation to God wherein all that is individual and fleeting disappears, there can be nothing fleeting in it, but all must be eternal.

Allow me to unpack that. According to Schleiermacher, that place inside of us where we are anchored to God—that place where we acknowledge our absolute dependence on God—that relationship—that feeling—is eternal. Not everything about us is eternal. That is why we should anchor ourselves on God, because it is our point of contact with God that is eternal. It is from Schleiermacher’s thinking on this subject that I have gained my own beliefs regarding eternal life: Every part of a person that deserves to live forever will. That’s why we should love others and love all creation with reckless abandon. That’s why the subject of God, and religion, deserves our attention. Along with Schleiermacher, I can’t imagine God sending a person into some unending punishment. They will simply cease to be. That part of us which is aware of its absolute dependence on God, and responds to that dependence with love, is eternal.

As for Christ, Schleiermacher believed that Jesus Christ was completely God-conscious—that Christ was in full relationship with God, and is therefore completely eternal. And it is through our own communion with that God-conscious Christ that we enter most fully into relationship with God.

Schleiermacher has in many ways been lost to history. He is studied in the seminaries, but few outside the halls of academia have ever heard his name. When he died in 1834, however, he was very well known. It is reported that over forty-thousand people showed up for his funeral. That, in a time before mass-communication, testifies to his significance.

Modern theologically liberal ministers are indebted to this great man. He really did rescue our faith from superstition. More than anybody since St. Thomas Aquinas, Schleiermacher made it acceptable to arrive at church with a fully functioning brain. There is no line in the sand between those who are intelligent and scientific, and those who are devout and religious. If science sees no need of religion, it is blinded to the truth. If religion rejects science, it is nothing more than superstition.

In bringing this series to a close, I should mention the primary reason Schleiermacher largely disappeared from public discussion. He believed the Kingdom of God was here on earth—at least, the only part of the kingdom you and I can affect. He thought that together we could work toward a much more perfect world, with God at its center, and with men and women the world over working for peace and justice.

Many thought the 20th Century would be the time when humanity began to live up to its purpose. Instead, from the very beginning of the century, war after war marred the earth. The First World War, and the Second, saw the use of technology to bring forth previously unheard of destruction. Schleiermacher would be considered the greatest theologian of the 19th Century, but Karl Barth would be the greatest and most influential of the 20th Century theologians. Barth held that humanity was not even close to being perfectible. In fact, Barth said that contrary to Schleiermacher, there is nothing of God in a human being. God is wholly other. And the only point of contact between God and the human being—the only goodness to be found in humankind—is the spirit of Christ that God puts there after a person accepts Jesus as his or her personal savior.

That is the theology that has ruled the church through the 20th Century. There are those of us who are throwbacks to Schleiermacher. Bob and I certainly stand much more in his tradition than in Barth’s. And like every other liberal theologian in the world, we cringe when humanity proves itself, time and again, unable to resolve its differences without resort to war. Whenever brother kills brother, Schleiermacher is relegated more and more to the margins of history, and Barth, along with Calvin, grows in stature, their belief that humanity is hopelessly depraved being written time and again in blood across our hurting world.

Well, this has been challenging. The entire four-part series was challenging to research and write, and I know it has been challenging to listen to. When you think about it, Christian theology has bounced back and forth through the ages like a pinball. Just consider our little series: Paul said it was all about faith, and philosophy had nothing to do with it. Justyn Martyr and Origen said we could reconcile mind and heart. Augustine used his brain like nobody before or since, but ultimately said it was all about faith. St. Thomas Aquinas rediscovered Greek philosophy, bringing an end to the Dark Ages and reconciling head and heart. Martin Luther had a tortured soul and a brilliant mind, but ultimately said it’s all about faith and grace, and nothing more. Then Frederick Schleiermacher insisted we could once again bring our full mental faculties to the church, and made a place for both honest science and honest religion in the Christian faith. And finally, Karl Barth, with some help from the 20th Century, insisted the gap between Creator and creation is infinite, bridgeable only by faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

We’re still bouncing around! I for one, with great devotion to Jesus Christ, still believe humanity is basically good. And I still believe we are supposed to bring head and heart fully to worship. And most important of all, I still believe that God is responsible for what lies beyond the grave, and we are responsible for what lies on this side of the grave, and if we aren’t here to love one another and make an honest attempt to build the Kingdom of God right here on earth, I can’t imagine why we are here.

Blessings on you all, and thank you for being so attentive through what I know was a series of sermons that were much more information than inspiration. Any time I start doubting that the Kingdom of God is among us, all I have to do is look out at your faces.